Tuesday 9 December 2008

Treasure Island (1950)

Long before the Walt Disney company made the interesting though massively flawed animated feature Treasure Planet, the first of many of Disney's live action films back in 1950 was based on the same source material, Treasure Island. It's a children's classic in its own stead, mostly but not entirely due to the work of Robert Newton as a memorable Long John Silver. It's very much worth watching but it's status as an all time classic may just be due to the fact that it was made at the right time by the right people and is probably better known than any other version.

You all know the story. On the treacherous west coast of England in 1765 is a pub called the Admiral Benbow, which is run by young Jim Hawkins's mother. Into the pub comes Black Dog, a man with a serious scar across his face, and he's seeking Capt William Bones, Billy Bones to his friends. Soon after comes a blind man, Blind Pew, to hand him the black spot, and the captain knows that the one legged man won't be far behind them. He's there but he's hiding, with his 'rightful owned property', the treasure map to Capt Flint's pirate treasure, all 700,000 pounds of it.

So Squire Trelawney charters a boat to head out from Bristol to retrieve the treasure, and picks all the wrong people to crew it. Not least of his mistakes is to hire a cook by the name of Long John Silver, the very one legged man that Billy Bones was so afraid of seeing again. And while Trelawney thinks he's in charge, via the loyal Capt Smollett, Long John Silver is really running the show, manoeuvering behind the scenes until the time is ripe to strike. His task is to keep the crew behaved until then, and he uses young Jack Hawkins as part of his plan.

This was an old classic long before Disney ever got his hands on it. Robert Louis Stevenson's novel first saw book form in 1883 and had been serialised before then. It's a peach, needless to say, and every kid should read it. Beyond being a great ripping yarn full of adventure, it's a a great coming of age story and the biggest influence on the culture of pirates ever written. Everything you think about when you think of pirate stories started here: buried treasure on tropical islands, maps where X marks the spot, the dead man's chest, peg legged villains with parrots on their shoulders. Sure enough, there's some Yo Ho Ho'ing too, and plenty of bottles of rum.

This wasn't the first version made for the screen. J Searle Dawley made a short version as far back in 1912, two years after making an interesting version of Frankenstein. What seems like every decade saw more versions and even the Russians beat Disney to it by 13 years. There have been over 50 versions made thus far, but this does remain one of the most definitive. From the hindsight of over half a century, Bobby Driscoll is pretty annoying as Jim Hawkins, though he was acclaimed at the time, a year after winning a special Oscar for his work in other films. His accent is most annoying but that's Disney's fault; though his performance is lacking in passion too.

Robert Newton is the standout. His work is very much deserving of the memory and he stands head and shoulders above everyone else in every respect. He's as great here as he was as Bill Sikes two years earlier in Oliver Twist, and he'd go on to reprise his role in the sequel which carried the name of his character, Long John Silver. People like Basil Sydney, Walter Fitzgerald, Denis O'Dea, Ralph Truman and Geoffrey Wilkinson are just like the film itself: they all give solid performances that you can't help but enjoy watching, but through coarse acting that's pretty generic. This is a film well worth watching more than once but if you analyse it, there's not that much here that didn't come from Robert Louis Stevenson or Robert Newton.

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